Shabbat Parashat Shoftim August 18, 2023 – 1 Elul 5783

A Tidbit of Torah – Shoftim 5783

You shall appoint magistrates and officials for your tribes, in all the settlements that the Lord your God is giving you, and they shall govern the people with due justice. You shall not judge unfairly: you shall show no partiality; you shall not take bribes, for bribes blind the eyes of the discerning and upset the plea of the just. Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that the Lord your God is giving you.
D’varim / Deuteronomy 16:18-20

The statement, “Justice, justice shall you pursue,” is amongst the most famous and often quoted passages in the Torah. What exactly does this emphatic command ask of us? Through the centuries, Cha”zal, our ancient blessed sages have offered a variety of answers beginning with the most basic idea that this is an imperative addressed to judges to be especially diligent as they are applying divine law to the cases before them.
Rashi, reading the passage in its original context, suggests that as individuals we are to, “Seek out a good court”. As many cases were handled by ad hoc courts, with judges chosen by the contending parties, seeking out a good court meant selecting individuals with integrity and expertise to adjudicate the matter.

Ramban, Nacmanides, expands on this stating, “The point of the repetition is that not only must the judges rule justly, but you in turn must pursue justice by leaving your own place for a place where the Sages are superior (and are thus better able to adjudicate the matter).

The Torah Temimah, building on a passage in the talmudic tractate Sanhedrin,  suggests that the first Tzedek/justice refers to difficult cases that involve false testimony, whereas the second Tzedek/justice refers toeasier cases in which the parties do not commit perjury, but that in both cases the judges have a responsibilityto think deeply, consider the matter fairly, and offer an answer that settles the issue justly.

Ibn Ezra sees the repetition of the word Tzedek as being, “addressed to each of the contending parties. The repetition of “tzedek, justice” implies that they should pursue a just result whether it brings them profit or loss. Alternatively, he writes, perhaps it is an imperative that they should continue to pursue justice time after time, throughout their lives.

Read within the broader context of the Torah portion and the Book of D’varim / Deuteronomy, the doubling of the word Tzedek/justice emphasizes the collective obligation to build a just, fair, and equitable society. It is not sufficient to create a judicial system that ostensibly treats everyone equally no matter their level of privilege. For Tzedek/justice to truly prevail demands that we correct inequities within our communities such as those stemming from race, gender, ethnicity, economics, sexual orientation, and access to power. This, I believe, is what Ibn Ezra intended by making the focus of this command each and every person, emphasizing our individual responsibility to pursue justice and our personal responsibility to move our society towards the ideal of Tzedek/justice.

Shabbat Shalom –

​​​​​​​Rabbi David M. Eligberg